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updated 5:22 AM CEST, Jun 10, 2021

Sharing economy a thousand years ago: shared reading

Silent reading was uncommon until the end of the 18th century. So was literacy to a similar extent. Nevertheless, were illiterate people prevented from accessing books and manuscripts, novels and poems, letters and daily notes? On the contrary. An early form of sharing economy flourished throughout centuries.

One thousand or five hundred years ago, when alone, it didn’t really matter if someone read the texts loud or silently. Reading and writing was the privilege of a very small minority. When not alone, things changed dramatically. Who were listening? What happened to the illiterate who were the vast majority of  people? The response may be unforeseen: sharing economy. Some had reading skills so they shared their skills with those who didn’t. The result was penetrating.

The landmark quote, that most historians and linguists have in mind about how rare silent reading was, can be found in the Confessions of Augustine, the Church Father, from the 4th century AD. He narrated with astonishment what he saw from Ambrose, bishop of Milan (Italy). In book 6, chapter 3 Augustine elaborated several theories why he did so:

“When he read, his eyes moved over the pages, and his understanding ferreted out the sense, but his voice, his tongue, was inactive. […], we saw him reading this way, and never any other way. […] who was going to dare bother someone concentrating that hard?) […]. We figured that […] he didn’t want to be distracted and was perhaps avoiding having someone listening to him with eager intensity, which would mean that if the book he was reading made any sort of puzzling assertion, he would have to explain it as well as read […] But saving his voice […] was perhaps a sounder reason for reading silently. Whatever his intention was in doing it, the gentleman certainly had a good intention.”

The exception here proves the rule. We have multiple sources testifying that well educated, erudite noblemen and professionals were simply unable to read silently.

Ancient and modern libraries and homes were filled with a special ambient noise – people whispering,  reciting, and telling.

Books represented a small proportion in the immense ocean of contemporary texts. Printing was invented in the 15th century. Before and long after manuscripts made up the pool of writings. A huge number of world famous books, plays, poems have been preserved only in hand-written form. Since no “manuscript stores” existed where one could have purchased and distributed (let’s say) 50 issues of a (let’s say) Shakespearian play, people needed to copy a few items and read them loudly. And people gathered around them. Those few who could read, nobles, churchmen, guild members, intellectuals, officials, teachers, notaries, lawyers, clerks, doctors, architects, merchants, painters shared this skill with anyone at home, on the streets or on a long trip.


regular people were not only included remotely and indirectly in the consumption of literary works, travel books and herbal treatises. They could follow easily even the most sophisticated works, with plenty of difficult references to ancient mythology, to history, and to the Bible, with all kinds of meters, feet and syllables.

Probably just as well as we do when being in a theatre or a church, institutions that have kept these ancient traditions alive to some degree. Communication was just as social and collective as today, with a lot of improvisation. It was enough if the family or a group had one single person with reading skills who could spread the word. A lot of citizens had a very good memory, a faculty of the mind that was much more required and needed then, so loud reading many times worked perfectly without having any physical copies.

As a consequence, to publish something meant to show it to the public, to the friends, to the community first. The texts had a structure, some guidance and specific grouping of subtexts to enable and facilitate the loud reading and the reception on behalf of the listeners.

The combination of loud reading and mass silent and collective listening equals to what I call historical shared reading.

We may think that sharing economy is a modern invention, but in a less developed, articulated and commercialized form it had long preceded our century.

Instead of listing thousands of examples, here I present  one of the most popular literary works in history. Chapter XXV of the second part of Don Quijote of La Mancha, written by Cervantes has a very lifelike, revealing, graphic and illustrative ending:

“Don Quixote and Sancho obeyed him and went to where the show was already put up and uncovered, set all around with lighted wax tapers which made it look splendid and bright. When they came to it Master Pedro ensconced himself inside it, for it was he who had to work the puppets, and a boy, a servant of his, posted himself outside to act as showman and explain the mysteries of the exhibition, having a wand in his hand to point to the figures as they came out. And so, all who were in the inn being arranged in front of the show, some of them standing, and Don Quixote, Sancho, the page, and cousin, accommodated with the best places, the interpreter began to say what he will hear or see who reads or hears the next chapter.”

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